Does Language Shape Thought?

Topics: English language, Time, Space Pages: 28 (9105 words) Published: September 12, 2010
Cognitive Psychology 43, 1–22 (2001) doi:10.1006/cogp.2001.0748, available online at on

Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time Lera Boroditsky
Stanford University Does the language you speak affect how you think about the world? This question is taken up in three experiments. English and Mandarin talk about time differently— English predominantly talks about time as if it were horizontal, while Mandarin also commonly describes time as vertical. This difference between the two languages is reflected in the way their speakers think about time. In one study, Mandarin speakers tended to think about time vertically even when they were thinking for English (Mandarin speakers were faster to confirm that March comes earlier than April if they had just seen a vertical array of objects than if they had just seen a horizontal array, and the reverse was true for English speakers). Another study showed that the extent to which Mandarin–English bilinguals think about time vertically is related to how old they were when they first began to learn English. In another experiment native English speakers were taught to talk about time using vertical spatial terms in a way similar to Mandarin. On a subsequent test, this group of English speakers showed the same bias to think about time vertically as was observed with Mandarin speakers. It is concluded that (1) language is a powerful tool in shaping thought about abstract domains and (2) one’s native language plays an important role in shaping habitual thought (e.g., how one tends to think about time) but does not entirely determine one’s thinking in the strong Whorfian sense. © 2001 Academic Press Key Words: Whorf; time; language; metaphor; Mandarin.

Does the language you speak shape the way you understand the world? Linguists, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists have long been interested in this question. This interest has been fueled in large part by the observation that different languages talk about the world differently. Does the fact that languages differ mean that people who speak different languages

This research was funded by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to the author. Foremost, I thank Jennifer Y. Lee, who has made countless contributions to this research and has been an invaluable source of information about the Mandarin language. I thank Barbara Tversky, Gordon Bower, and Herbert Clark for many insightful discussions of this research and Michael Ramscar for comments on an earlier draft of this article. Address correspondence and reprint requests to Lera Boroditsky, Department of Psychology, Bldg. 420, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2130. E-mail to lera@psych. 1 0010-0285/01 $35.00 Copyright © 2001 by Academic Press All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.



think about the world differently? Does learning new languages change the way one thinks? Do polyglots think differently when speaking different languages? Although such questions have long been issues of interest and controversy, definitive answers are scarce. This article briefly reviews the empirical history of these questions and describes three new experiments that demonstrate the role of language in shaping habitual thought. The doctrine of Linguistic Determinism—the idea that thought is determined by language—is most commonly associated with the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf, impressed by linguistic diversity, proposed that the categories and distinctions of each language enshrine a way of perceiving, analyzing, and acting in the world. Insofar as languages differ, their speakers too should differ in how they perceive and act in objectively similar situations (Whorf, 1956). This strong Whorfian view—that thought and action are entirely determined by language—has long been abandoned in the field. Particularly effective in undermining the strong view was work on color...
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